RICHMOND, Calif. — In December, the openly gay, white police chief of this tough, minority-dominated Northern California city held up a sign reading “#blacklivesmatter” during a protest over the deaths of two unarmed black suspects at the hands of Missouri and New York police.
The photo of Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus with the sign went viral, sparking criticism from the local police officers’ union and debate over whether his participation was appropriate.
But the episode also put a spotlight on a grassroots policing style credited with turning around a moribund department and helping drive down crime in an industrial city plagued by gang violence. While similar cities grapple with vocal and sometime-violent unrest over police relations, Magnus and his department have won over many residents and political leaders with an unconventional policing style that stresses community outreach over show of force.
“I have ambitious plans for policing in general and Richmond in particular,” Magnus said after the department’s monthly meeting of the command staff on Jan. 12, where the chief’s focus on community policing was on display. Code enforcement, homeless outreach and a shake-up of command duties to build stronger ties to the community were all on the agenda, along with equipping patrol officers with body cameras and a call for more social media communications.
Magnus, 54, is soft-spoken, but he curses like the seasoned police officer he is. Before formally taking over the Richmond force in January 2006, Magnus served six years as the chief of Fargo, North Dakota. Before that, he rose to the rank of captain in the Lansing, Michigan, police department during his 16-year career there.
Magnus says he steals many of his community policing ideas from other departments that have successfully implemented them. He also says many of his policies are adapted from the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization that studies and teaches policing strategies.
Magnus was an unlikely choice to take over the troubled department when he was lured from Fargo, a city of roughly the same population as Richmond but a world apart in terms of crime and demographic makeup.
The Richmond Police Department was a mess internally, reeling from scandals, lawsuits and high turnover. City leaders decided to look outside the department for a chief.
One of the first things Magnus did when he took over was to disband the department’s “street teams,” units of heavily armed officers deployed in high-crime areas.
The teams stopped “everything that moved,” Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan said, in hopes of finding suspects with warrants or carrying small amounts of illegal drugs. Gagan said the strategy is still a popular one across the country, but Magnus didn’t like it that many in the community perceived the aggressive street teams as an occupying army.
Magnus also eliminated the seniority system that allowed officers to choose the areas they would patrol. He required officers to take on more responsibilities on their beats beyond responding to calls. Beat officers are required to attend neighborhood meetings and to maintain a high profile at churches, schools and businesses. They’re encouraged to hand out their mobile phone numbers and email addresses to residents.
“A lot of people were skeptical at first … I know I was skeptical. I mean, not only was he coming from outside the department, he was coming from Fargo, of all places,” said Officer Virgil Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the force and the newly installed president of the police union. “But he came in with a plan and stuck to it, and the image of the city and of the police has changed dramatically. Morale has improved greatly.”
The union initially objected to the police chief’s participation in the Dec. 9 demonstration. The association’s lawyer said Magnus’ appearance in uniform “dishonored the department” and violated a law barring political activity on duty. But Thomas said the union backed away from those claims after sitting down and talking with Magnus about the demonstration.
“We talked about it, and I understand what he was trying to do,” Thomas said. “He’s trying to bridge the gap, like we all are.”
Magnus is unapologetic about his participation in the demonstration, saying it was an opportunity to show Richmond that its police department is in tune with a community roughly one-third white, one-third black and one-third Latino. “We get it,” Magnus said.
By most metrics, the department has improved under Magnus’ stewardship.
The city in 2014 recorded 11 murders, the lowest rate per capita in recent decades. It was the fifth straight year the murder rate declined in Richmond. Violent crimes and property crimes alike have plummeted, as have officer-involved shootings. The U.S. Department of Justice recently added Magnus to a panel of experts investigating police relations with the community in Ferguson, Missouri.
Magnus practices what he preaches: He owns a home in the city and is married to Terrance Cheung, the mayor’s chief of staff. The couple’s wedding last year was attended by a long-list of influential Democratic politicians, and most of the city’s council members.
Barry Krisberg, a University of California, Berkeley criminologist, said Magnus is one of the few police chiefs actually employing “community policing,” which entails police becoming an active part of the community.
“A lot of departments pay lip service to community policing, but Richmond is actually doing it,” Krisberg said.